Last week, I got a text from my dad about an article I wrote on student leaves of absence for The Eye. “Sarina. Any way you can redact the names from your article?” An hour later I was on the phone with my mom, who told me she cringed when she saw the names of the people I interviewed in print, specifically of those who shared personal stories about mental illness.
I panicked. Had I done something wrong? Was this article hurting the people whose names were in print? Why was my mom cringing? I had told my interviewees that they could choose to be anonymous if they wished, but about half told me they wanted their real names attached to their stories instead. It was the students’ choice, not mine.
Though I explained this to my parents, they were unconvinced that full names were the way to go. While these students may be OK with having their stories publicly available on the Internet today, would they still be OK with it 10 years from now or in the near future when they’re applying for jobs?
I couldn’t answer that question, but here’s what I do know: Anyone with mental illness or other deeply personal struggles should not have to feel embarrassed or believe that they need to hide their battle from the public’s eye. My parents admitted that they come from an age in which mental illness was highly stigmatized and that their generational bias may have fueled their initial response of discomfort.
However, this isn’t only a phenomenon seen in older generations. I’ve had conversations with people my age as well who have expressed discomfort with individuals’ online or public declarations of mental illnesses and emotional battles. “Won’t that person regret it later?” they ask. While these people have the right to feel nervous for those who choose to come out publicly with their personal struggles, I worry that this attitude further perpetuates the stigma of mental illness and emotional problems in general.
Some people are naturally private, and if they don’t want to have their names attached to their stories of personal struggle or if they don’t want their stories told at all, they are certainly justified in their decision—it’s their life, after all. But others who find freedom in sharing their stories are the pioneers breaking the stigma of mental illness, and they neither need nor deserve a raised eyebrow from people who think they’d be better off keeping their stories to themselves.
First-person accounts from individuals with disordered eating, depression, self-esteem issues, and other mental illnesses are not only powerful stories, but also signals of a time when those facing grave internal battles are supported rather than stigmatized. The comments section of any bare-all article or photo about one’s personal struggle includes plenty of thank-you’s from people who presumably are struggling with similar problems. Gone are the days when mental illness was countered with lobotomies and isolation. These are the days when emotional difficulties and mental illnesses are beginning to be countered with real support, be it through solidarity, therapy, or medication.
Given the cycle of support—someone shares a personal story of struggle, which encourages others to bravely share their own—one could say it’s a new fad to share a bare-it-all story with the Internet. You may find out your best friend was sexually assaulted through a blog post. Maybe you’ll discover your sister has depression through a Facebook status. Your News Feed might be populated with photos of partially naked people holding up signs saying, “I am not my weight.” As an onlooker, it can be natural to feel discomfort about these declarations. However, I am sure that the bravery, emotional release, and message involved with sharing a bare-it-all story is much grander and more important than any onlooker’s opinion that the story shouldn’t have been shared.
Outsiders taking in these deeply personal stories may argue that their discomfort stems from concern for the people who are sharing their stories. It’s the same question my parents asked—what if one day these people regret having their stories publicly available on the Internet?
Well, I’m guessing they’ll only regret those stories if one day, someone—let’s say a potential employer—finds that story and thinks less of them. But what if that potential employer is someone who thinks that sharing such a story is a mark of personal strength rather than a mark against someone?
With the mental health awareness and acceptance movement, that’s where I think we’re heading: to a world where there is no shame in mental illness or other personal struggles. So, provided that you want to, bare it all and become an active leader in the fight against the stigmatization of mental illness and emotional problems. Maybe not everyone will support you today, but maybe 10 years from now your contributions will have led to a society where everyone will.
Sarina Bhandari is a Columbia College senior majoring in sociology. Balancing with Bhandari runs alternate Tuesdays.
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